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They Looked and Loved By Mrs. Alex McVeigh Miller Characters: 14289

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

All unconscious that Azalea had penetrated their secret, the three men pursued their way to the fortune-teller's cabin. But they were doomed to disappointment. The place was deserted, the doors locked, the small windows securely boarded over.

Evidently Meg had gone away, and, judging from the preparation made, intended to be absent some time. And yet that could not be, for Nita's trial would come off in a week, and she was one of the witnesses for the prosecution. Chagrined and baffled, they sat down on the low bench before the cabin, wondering what they should do next.

It was a dull and gloomy day, the sea was rough, and the tide rolled in to the shore with a hollow, reverberating moan. They watched it with sad eyes and heavy hearts, each busy with his own thoughts. Suddenly Donald Kayne spoke:

"My friends, I am minded to tell you my story."

They looked into his face. It was pale and wan with a great despair, and his voice faltered as he continued:

"You and I, Dorian, have been friends for ten years, ever since you were a boy of sixteen, in fact. You, too, Van Hise, have known me for years; but it was before I met either of you that I lost my darling wife!"

"Your wife!" cried Dorian.

"Yes, Pepita was my wife," said Kayne, "my wife dead to me now for almost fifteen years, yet with the mystery of her fate unsolved till yesterday. Is it not a wonder I have escaped madness?"

They could not reply save by mute looks of sympathy. Their feelings overpowered them.

"I will tell you how I first met her," he continued dreamily, with his sad eyes fixed on the sea. "It was on Broadway. I saw a beautiful, young, dark-eyed girl crossing the street in such a careless, preoccupied fashion that she only escaped death from the hoofs of an advancing team by the celerity with which I sprang forward and dragged her out of the way. As it was, she had been thrown down and trampled on, and as I laid her down on the pavement I at first believed her dead. She was dressed in costly garments, made in a quaint, foreign fashion that, with her dark eyes and hair and olive skin, proclaimed her Spanish. A crowd gathered around, but no one could tell who she was, so, as she remained unconscious, a physician was called, and she was removed to the hospital.

"The hoofs of the horses had severely injured the poor girl, and she remained at the hospital several weeks. I saw her daily, for it is needless to tell you that the first moment I saw her I lost my heart. I won Pepita's friendship, and she told me she was a Spanish girl, an orphan, who had come to America from old Madrid to seek an only brother in New York, only to find him dead. Of this brother she told me a romantic story. On attaining his majority, some years before, her brother had come to America, and had met in New York a beautiful, poor girl, whom he made his bride. On taking her home to Spain his proud parents had refused to receive their son's choice, and in anger he returned to America, never to see them again.

"In a few years misfortune overtook them. They became poor and miserable, and longed for the son they had cast off in their pride. They died, and their only remaining child, beautiful Pepita, crossed the seas to find her brother. On the day that I saved her life she had just learned that her brother and his wife were both dead. Despair made her reckless. Alone and friendless in a strange land, with but a few dollars in her purse, she wandered along, wondering if she could ever return to her native land.

"The tears blinded her as she crossed the street, and she did not notice that she was under the horses' heads until they trampled her beneath their feet. You guess the end, my friends. I married the lovely Spanish stranger, although my friends blamed me, and for a year we were blissfully happy. We traveled several months, and it was in Paris I had the serpent ring made especially for her and the design destroyed. She had a great fondness for unique trifles, and I always gratified her fancy to the utmost in everything. We returned to this country, and over our home Pepita reigned a lovely queen, seeming not to have a wish ungratified. Our happiness seemed as pure and perfect as mortals could enjoy.

"Suddenly as a thunder-bolt falling from a clear sky my happiness came to an end. My wife left home one day in my absence and never returned. Oh, God! how did I ever live through it? The shame, the horror, the agony! For the world sneered and said I had married unwisely, and that my darling had fled from me with some favored lover. I could not believe it, although her maid told me she had received a letter that had agitated her very much, and that she had gone away directly afterward, saying that she intended to spend the day with a friend. I had gone to Boston at the time, and when I returned two days later I found that she had not returned, and that the city was ringing with the news of her flight. I employed detectives. I almost wrecked my health in the vain search for her, for I would not believe there was anything guilty in her flight. No-no, I was too sure of her love and truth for that. But, alas! the days and weeks and months lengthened into weary years, and there came no news of the lost one, nor even the faintest clue until that night you remember, Dorian, when I first saw Pepita's ring on Nita's hand, and almost went mad over her refusal to tell me how she came by it."

"I can no longer wonder at your passionate vehemence!" answered Dorian gently.

"Yes, think of what I suffered from her refusal. I knew not if Pepita were dead or alive-until this spring, when, lingering one twilight hour in the grounds at Gray Gables, my lost wife appeared to me in spirit-form and led me to the basement wall, where she disappeared. Ah, then I knew at last that my darling was dead, and I know now that she was seeking to lead me to her hiding-place in the miser's gold-vault."

The listeners were silent. Could it be true, or was it but a vision of superstitious fancy? Donald Kayne would always believe that he had seen a spirit from another world.

When they all grew calmer, they agreed that he had been right in believing his wife was faithful. It must have been a decoy letter that had called her away, perhaps some promised news of her brother or his child, although Pepita had never spoken of any child.

"She fell into a trap set for unwary feet, and was murdered, although for what cause we may perhaps never know unless we can wring the secret from old Meg," said Donald Kayne.

The rest of the day was spent in making very quiet and private arrangements for removing all that remained of Donald Kayne's young bride from Gray Gables and conveying it to New York, where the unhappy man wished to have the interment in his family vault.

"And after I have solved the mystery of my darling's death the world that wronged her so cruelly by its base suspicions shall know the truth," he said bitterly.

They made arrangements with Mrs. Hill to come back at midnight, having taken her into their confidence regarding the finding of the skeleton. She was fu

ll of interest and sympathy, and they found her waiting in the dark to admit them into the house.

"Every soul is asleep but me," she whispered, and they went noiselessly to the room where they had left the shrouded skeleton on the bed, Mrs. Hill waiting at the front door for them.

They closed the door, struck a light, and turned to the bed.

The white coverlet was drawn up as they had left it, and the slight outline of something was visible beneath.

Donald threw down the cover and lifted the bundle of white silk in his arms. He laid it down again, turned back a fold of silk and looked within.

A cry of horror came from his lips. Some one had taken away the skeleton and left the bed-bolster in its place.

Dorian brought Mrs. Hill to the room, and they talked in whispers of the strange loss. The housekeeper soon jumped at a conclusion.

"I believe the Courtneys have done this," she said. "They came in to-day while you were shut in here, and maybe they saw you go out and suspected something. I will tell you why I think so. Azalea came to me soon after, as sweet as sugar, and got me to go to the druggist's, a mile away, on a silly little errand for some cosmetic she wanted. I expect she wanted to get me out of the way so she could ransack the room in my absence. It is nobody but she that has taken it away and hid it for spite, I'm sure of that! Don't make any outcry for a few days, please, gentlemen, and don't let her know you suspect her, and I'll watch the little cat and find out where she has hidden it away."

It seemed best to follow her advice, and they went away together, heavy-hearted enough, for fate seemed to baffle them at every turn. But they hoped much from Mrs. Hill, for they did not believe that Azalea could have taken the skeleton away from the house, and it seemed as if she must surely be detected in her wickedness by the espionage of the clever housekeeper.

Tears fell from Nita's eyes the next day when Dorian told her all that had happened, and added:

"All the evidence points to the fact that poor Pepita was your own aunt, and must have met her death seeking for you."

"Surely, surely Miss Courtney could not be so vile as to secrete those poor remains," she cried indignantly.

Dorian gave one of those cynical laughs of old, and answered:

"Azalea Courtney is vile enough for anything. She has no more heart or soul than a stone, and her only god is herself. She would like to have the whole world fall down and worship her, and no words can describe the virulence of her hate toward any one who discovers her true character and despises her as she deserves."

"And she is one of the witnesses against me. She will try to hound me to my doom!" cried Nita.

"Yes, she will certainly do all she can against you," admitted Dorian. "But you need not fear her malice, my darling. She cannot harm you, for Heaven itself is watching to defend you!" and he smiled at her cheerfully, for he had the greatest faith that a fitting retribution for all her wickedness would yet come to Azalea.

Meanwhile the jealous beauty was already suffering the punishment for her curiosity, for her nerves had been so shocked by the finding of the skeleton that fit had succeeded fit, and for several days she was quite ill from the effects of her scare, and talked wildly in her dreams of the terrible thing, fancying herself a bride, in white-silk robes, about to be wedded to a skeleton, and often screaming out wildly in her sleep.

But Mrs. Courtney kept the secret of Azalea's illness carefully to herself, and gave out to the servants that her daughter was suffering from a persistent headache. Only Mrs. Hill suspected what was the matter, and laughed in her sleeve at thought of the fright Azalea had received.

"It was good for her, the sly cat, and I wish it had turned every hair of her head white when she found it!" she said to herself, chuckling with delight over Azalea's discomfiture.

But outwardly good Mrs. Hill was very solicitous over the young lady's welfare, and quite won over Mrs. Courtney by her kind inquiries. In truth, that lady was glad of the courteous manner of the housekeeper, for there had always been furtive enmity between them, and the interloper feared lest it might now come to open warfare. She knew that she had now no shadow of right at Gray Gables, and that after the antagonism she had displayed toward Nita, she should in common decency have taken her departure from the place.

But since her poverty had fallen on her she had developed what Mrs. Hill slangily called "a very hard cheek," and she was determined to stand her ground until she was ordered to leave. Knowing how noble and high-minded Nita was, she had no fears of being thus dispossessed, and stayed coolly on, looking every day for the advent of Sir George Merlin, who had promised to soon follow his betrothed across the water.

Mrs. Courtney had contrived to make the baronet believe her a rich woman, and she had no mind to let him find out the imposition until he had married Azalea. But, in the meantime, the question of Azalea's trousseau became an all-absorbing thought. Where could they get the wherewithal to purchase it?

They had jewels, but they did not want to sacrifice them, and they could not expect anything more from Nita. She was becoming very despondent over it when her daughter's discovery of the hidden skeleton put a clever idea into her head. She hid it away carefully, believing that a handsome ransom would be offered for its recovery.

Several days passed, but, to her chagrin, no notice seemed to be taken of the disappearance of the skeleton, so she decided to write a blackmailing letter to the parties concerned in secreting it, threatening them with arrest by the authorities unless they paid a large sum for its return. The epistle was signed by a fictitious masculine name, and arrangements were made for the payment of the money in a way by which the receivers need not be detected. Unless the sum demanded was forthcoming in a week the authorities would be informed, or the skeleton would be destroyed.

Dorian Mountcastle was the party to whom this precious epistle was sent, and he decided not to inform Donald Kayne of its receipt until after he had held an interview with Mrs. Hill.

"Make no reply to it," advised Mrs. Hill. "I am almost certain that Mrs. Courtney has got it concealed, and as soon as her daughter gets well enough for them to go out riding together I will make a careful search for it. She will not destroy it, for she hopes to get money for it; neither will she inform the authorities, for that would defeat her hopes of gain. Only keep silent, and trust all to me, and, I will promise, you shall have it back safe. But don't tell Mr. Kayne about the blackmailing letter, for it would excite him so much that he would probably gratify Mrs. Courtney by giving her the thousands she is after."

Dorian thanked her gratefully for her faithful interest, and promised not to let Kayne hear anything of the blackmailing project, for he was anxious to defeat the Courtneys if he could.

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